The Internet is living up to its potential as a major source for news about the presidential campaign, a new Pew Research Center study shows.
Nearly a quarter of Americans say they regularly learn something about the campaign from the Internet, almost double the percentage at a comparable point in the 2004 campaign.
Moreover, the Internet has now become a leading source of campaign news for young people, and the role of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook is a notable part of the story. Fully 42 percent of those ages 18 to 29 say they regularly learn about the campaign from the Internet, the highest percentage for any news source. In January 2004, just 20 percent of young people said they routinely got campaign news from the Internet.
The quadrennial Pew survey on campaign news and political communication, conducted Dec. 19-30 among 1,430 adults, shows that the proportion of Americans who rely on traditional news sources for information about the campaign has remained static or declined slightly since the 2004 presidential campaign.
Compared with the 2000 campaign, far fewer Americans now say they regularly learn about the campaign from local TV news (down eight points), nightly network news (down 13 points) and daily newspapers (down nine points). Cable news networks are up modestly since 2000, but have shown no growth since the 2004 campaign.
By contrast, the proportion of Americans who say they regularly learn about the campaign from the Internet has more than doubled since 2000 - from 9 percent to 24 percent. National Public Radio is the only other news source to show significant growth since 2000; currently 18 percent say they regularly learn about the campaign from NPR, up from 12 percent eight years ago.
With more young people going online for campaign information, the age gap in campaign news sources has widened. As was the case in 2004, older Americans are more likely than younger people to learn about the campaign from many traditional news sources, particularly local TV news, Sunday TV political programs, nightly network news and newspapers. The Internet is the only major news source that young people use for campaign news at higher rates than older Americans - and this gap has more than doubled since 2004.
People who rely on the Internet for campaign news turn to a wide array of Web sites. The most frequently mentioned online news outlets are MSNBC (at 26 percent), CNN (23 percent) and Yahoo News (22 percent). However, numerous other outlets also receive mentions, including non-traditional sources of campaign information: 3 percent each say they go to the Drudge Report or MySpace, while 2 percent specifically mention YouTube as a site where they get campaign news.
Substantial numbers of young people say they have gotten information on the campaign or the candidates from social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. Overall, more than a quarter of those younger than age 30 (27 percent) - including 37 percent of those ages 18-24 - have gotten campaign information from social networking sites. This practice is almost exclusively limited to young people: Just 4 percent of Americans in their 30s, and 1 percent of those ages 40 and older, have gotten news about the campaign in this way.
At a time when a declining number of young people rely on television for most of their news about the campaign, a sizable minority are going online to watch videos of campaign debates, speeches and commercials. Roughly four in 10 people under age 30 (41 percent) have watched at least one form of campaign video online, compared with 20 percent of those ages 30 and older.
However, even as the variety of campaign Web information resources has expanded, there are indications that most Internet users do not go online for the sole purpose of learning about the campaign. Rather, a majority of Web users (52 percent) say they "come across" campaign news and information when they are going online to do something else. This practice is particularly prevalent among younger Web users: 59 percent of Web users under age 30 come across campaign news online, compared with 43 percent of those ages 50 and older.
Pew's 2004 political communications survey showed that many people, especially the young, learned about the presidential campaign from comedy programs such as The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live. These shows were not airing new episodes while the poll was conducted, as a result of the continuing strike by the Writers Guild of America. For the most part, people who get at least some news from comedy and late-night talk shows say they feel they did not miss out on information about the campaigns when these shows were not on.
A full report on this study is available at www.people-press.org.
Sun blogging columnist Andrew Ratner is not writing this week.